A continent-sized land mass on the other side of the globe might not seem like an obvious place for Ireland to start a comparative analysis. Australia’s glorious weather and the diversity of its often-terrifying wildlife also set it apart. As does the bloody-minded optimism of its natives which, while perhaps an evolved response to both of the aforementioned environmental factors, lies in stark contrast to our damp fatalism.
Yet in the context of COVID-19 policy analysis, Australia and Ireland bear much in common. Both are island nations with small populations. Both have high standards of living and comparable public health resources. Notably, both are members of a two-island Common Travel Area. Could Australia and New Zealand offer a model of competent pandemic response for the UK and Ireland?
Public Health Comes First
Australia’s connections to China are well established. China’s insatiable demand for steel, coal, and other industrial inputs has made it Australia’s largest trading partner, and there are over 200,000 Chinese students across all levels of the Australian education and training system. In total, Australian receives 1.4 million Chinese visitors every year, and that means dozens of flights from China every week, including three directly from Wuhan to Sydney.
Although their economies are interdependent, Australia had no qualms suspending international travel with China at the outbreak of the disease. Knowing that the Australian people were squarely in the line of fire, and with little time to act, the Australian government quickly implemented blunt but effective policies to protect its citizens.
Whether those policies were popular in Beijing was of no concern to the Australian government. When they said, “public health comes first”, they bloody well meant it. Public health gets priority over international ceremony, over the economy, even over civil liberties at times, and if foreign politicians are offended by any of that, too bad!
The Irish government confidently told us they were “putting public health first” and that they would be “treating COVID-19 as a public health emergency”. That was reassuring to hear, but I would have to question their commitment to the approach. If protecting the public’s health was the primary goal, why did so many Irish people die?
A Stitch in Time…
By the time that the WHO finally acknowledged that yes, there could be human-to-human transmission and yes, this could be a very dangerous outbreak (the 22nd of January), Australia was in a precarious position. With so much Chinese traffic coming into the country, and with so little time to react, getting on top of the inevitable outbreak (there were no confirmed cases in Australia at the time) would require decisive action.
The Australian government immediately set to work.
The day after the WHO’s announcement, Australia began screening passengers on flights from Wuhan. Two days later the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade raised its risk warning for China to Level 3: Reconsider your need to travel. Two days later it was raised again to its highest level, Level 4: Do not travel.
Knowing that community transmission was likely occurring, Australia distributed 1 million protective masks from the national stockpile. On the weekend of the 1st of February, Australia joined New Zealand in suspending all travel from the Chinese mainland.
Given such an inauspicious start, Australia did phenomenally well to restrain the first wave so quickly. The number of active cases peaked in early April at 5,000 but there were fewer than 1,000 cases by the end of the month. Had Australia not been so active in the final 10 days of January, the first wave could have been orders of magnitude worse for Australia.
Other than a few timid words of travel advice, the cancellation of Ireland’s rugby match against Italy on the 26th of February was the first major action taken by the government to protect the nation’s health. That decision came 6 weeks after international transmissibility was confirmed, and 4 weeks after the WHO declared COVID-19 a Public Health Emergency of International Concern – only the 6th time they had made the declaration in 15 years.
For most of February, our medical experts told us that the risk to Ireland was only "moderate", despite the fact that the WHO had warned us in January that the risk to our people was "High". Our experts had been testing throughout the month and there had been not one positive result. It was possible that a few cases could appear, but we needn’t worry. Ireland had the same “advanced plans” and “comprehensive preparedness” that had protected the nation from SARS and MERS.
The truth is that by the 25th of February, and having spent 4 weeks at the task, the government had completed a total of 90 tests. That's a sample of 90 out of a population of 5,000,000. According to the Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, the fact that the tests were all negative proved that Ireland remained “COVID-19 free”. To anyone with an ounce of common sense, such a small sample proved that we didn't have a clue about the virus' true spread – and therefore the risk to the public health – because we weren’t even trying to find it.
International Travel Restrictions Work
Initially, passengers from China were informed about the disease and asked to present themselves if they believed they might be developing symptoms. This kind of screening is imprecise, and totally inadequate in response to such a pernicious adversary. Australia quickly updated the policy to suspend all travel from mainland China. Australia subsequently added suspensions to Iran (28th of February), South Korea (5th of March), and Italy (11th of March) before totally stopping all international travel on the 19th of March.
For the duration of March, Australia was on the same path as Italy and the UK. This was a period where the outbreak could have gotten out of control, but the lagged effects of the travel restrictions, supported by the domestic lockdown, started to have positive effects.
According to University of Sydney Associate Professor of Global Health and International Relations, Adam Kamradt-Scott, international travel restrictions were an essential component of their response: “What it immediately did was eliminate more than two-thirds of the route of transmission by which the virus was being introduced.”
The Irish government never implemented international travel restrictions. They never even try to stop the virus getting into the population. Instead of putting the nation into a protective bubble, the Irish government let the full force of the wave crash over the Irish people. Once they realised how serious it had become, they locked us down, put us in social distancing bubbles, and told us if we caught the virus, it was our own fault.
The only other governments in Europe that took the same approach to protecting the public health were the UK and Belarus.
International Policy Coordination is Essential
Australia and New Zealand coordinated their policies, especially in the early stages of the outbreak. Given that their societies are so deeply entwined, that was a sensible approach. They shared repatriation flights. They suspended travel from China and Iran on the same days. When the time came to close their borders to the rest of the world, they did it on the same day too.
In closing their borders, the Antipodeans were also suspending their Common Travel Area. I imagine it was an easy decision to make. International travel increases the spread of the virus and neither government was willing to risk their public health. It was the obvious, sensible thing to do. These momentous decisions are easier to make when you are guided by values, and not distracted by politics.
If there were any questions about the merits of policy coordination, they were answered by the EU where there was none. Incapable of seeing the crisis through anything other than a political lens, the EU scolded nations that were acting independently to protect the health of their own people. Several nations – none of the core – ignored the EU and implemented total border closures. Those independent nations fared better than most, with Estonia, Finland and Denmark among them. That over 350,000 of the EU’s citizens have so far died for a lack of policy coordination, says a lot about the EU today.
Can We Really Do No Better Than This?
I can’t help but look at the larger island beside us and wish our politicians had a better relationship. No doubt our leaders will blame it all on the UK (and perhaps their government would say the same about ours) but at the end of the day, it is the diplomat’s job to find workable solutions to difficult problems – regardless of who is sitting on the other side of the table. In this regard, Ireland's politicians let the nation down.
Australia and New Zealand acted early, acted decisively, and acted in concert. They should be a model of pandemic preparedness for the world. The next time a deadly contagious virus is on the loose (and it’s only a question of when) I hope Ireland and the UK can find it in themselves to work as closely as our Antipodean cousins did.